Fantasy is Tough

I don’t like fantasy.

You heard me. I grew up reading Tolkein, CS Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and loving them. I remember absorbing the Pern books all out of order and visiting different libraries to try and track them down (yes, I know technically Pern isn’t magic, bear with me). I read all fourteen Oz books and many of the series by other authors after Baum was gone. I adored Robin McKinley’s books, especially Beauty, which has to be my favorite fairy-tale retelling to this day. As a older verging-on-adult reader I found Xanth, and the Princess Bride (the movie, the book is… odd), and someone insisted I read a copy of Magic Kingdom, For Sale.

And then after a long gap, I started to read fantasy again, at an age where I was aware of the underlying costs in life. As a kid, you’re used to things being handed to you. Food, shelter, clothing… by and large your parents give you those things. As an adult, you become aware of the sacrifices and trade-offs necessary to make those things happen. You might work at a job you hate, but it pays the bills. You might give up dreams, in order to make others happen. Fantasy, in this context, stopped working for me. I still wanted to read for escapism (actually, I really needed it those first few years of adulthood) but I needed that grit of reality to be in the story to swallow it.

Fantasy worlds where saying the right words and poof, magic happens! just didn’t sit well with me. If repeating bibbidy-bobbidy-boo can shoot fire from your fingertips, the human race would have been extinct with the first babblings of a baby.  Worlds where all you need is a handy ley line, or a handful of pixie dust, or whatever the magical contrivance the author was using, left me cold. Worlds where everything was handily available, because magic! annoyed the heck out of me. And I read slush for a while, and there is only so much Tolkein pastiche one person can endure before drowning in it. I stopped reading anything that said fantasy on the cover.

I slowly came to a realization: that a lot of science fiction, purportedly, is fantasy. Pern, as above, and Star Wars, and Dune… there’s not enough science in them to make them anything but fantasy. They follow the fantasy tropes of being worlds caught in some medieval time-warp. I just got my copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to FantasyLand, and am delightedly chuckling over it, and remembering why I don’t like fantasy.

Except when I do. I’m capricious… But I love Terry Pratchett, and Jim Butcher, and having just finished Larry Corriea’s Hard Magic trilogy I am sad to know there is no more of it. I was introduced to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn with pleasure (and it’s not on my shelf, I think my eldest has it…). I just bought Zelazny’s Prince of Amber, and the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett, although I haven’t had time to read them yet. I’ll fight anyone who says Glory Road by RAH isn’t about the best fantasy novel out there…

And I write fantasy. Pixie Noir is unadulterated fairy-tale stuff, as is Trickster Noir, which I finished (rough draft) earlier this week. I pulled Sasquatch, and ogres, and the Firebird, and Raven, all into this world I’m weaving. Vulcan’s Kittens, my first novel, is partly fantasy and partly science, with an explanation of Clarke’s Law for the younger generation who live with gadgets my great-grandparents were astonished by.

Magic done right can be marvelous. Sometimes, like with Sarah Hoyt’s or Amanda Green’s shifters, you never get an explanation of where it comes from. Shifters just are. With Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching stories, beginning with the delightfully funny Wee Free Men, tell where the magic comes from, but in others of his books it is just there, part of the landscape. Im Pam Uphoff’s Outcasts and Gods series, it starts off science and becomes magical, but with a carefully explained system that does have costs, and limits, and I’ve been enjoying the books very much.

But flipping through the Tough Guide, I am reminded of why I don’t like fantasy. She says “The economy of Fantasyland is as full of holes as its Ecology,” and I am reminded of why I wrote my Pixie as having a job, and needing one. And part of his job is making sure predators don’t get out of hand. “Missing Heirs occur with great frequency.” Enough that if I see those two words in a blurb, I set the book gently down, and back away… I have a book on my desk that, in the back cover blurb, cheerfully and innocently includes (capitalization and all) ‘Dark Power,’ ‘Chosen One of Providence,’ and ‘Days of Judgement.’ I’m not looking forward to reading it. This list of top 100 Fantasy novels? I’ve read maybe 15-20 titles on it, and some of them remember with no pleasure at all.

There’s a line, somewhere, scratched faintly on a dungeon wall, no doubt, with the rats, and straw, and ‘scutterings’ in the dark to keep it company, between cliche and trope. Between ‘reader cookie’ and ‘oh, gawd, not again…’ Oh yeah… and if your story goes on, and on, and on… with no signs of ever ending, that’s another moment of backing away slowly trying not to make eye contact (I’m looking at you, wheel of time). How do you find that line? Well, I’m afraid it’s by paying attention, and reading rather a lot of fantasy, good and bad. You’ve only got a guttering candle stub in that dungeon to use to look, you know, and heaven help you if you drop it in the straw.

35 thoughts on “Fantasy is Tough

  1. Worlds where everything was handily available, because magic! annoyed the heck out of me.

    Me too, and for the same reason that poorly thought-out science fiction worlds where everything is handily available because technology! annoy me. One must think out the sources, capabilities and limitations of magic/technology in a fictional world, including counters to spells/devices, or one creates an evolutionarily non-robust secondary world — which is to say one where any bright occupant could bring the whole situation as shown crashing down with a few easy actions.

      1. I think Glenn Cook addresses a lot of this in all his work. The Black Company et seq, of course. But also The Instrumentalities of the Night and the Dread Empire.


      2. I started to write Fourth Sword from the thought that if there really were wizards capable of what wizards in fiction can be capable of, with such power why would they be contend to stay as the helper of the king or the lost heir when they could easily become the king themselves? (Gandalf gets free pass because he is basically an angel).

        Then have lots of those wizards around. Yes, lots might be good people, but I’m afraid that what is said of power and its corrupting effects probably is quite true.

        The end result was a very depressing world. Mix 1984 with feudal society, and add magic for the ruling class. Kids with the talent get snatched early on, and are then raised by the bosses and thoroughly indoctrinated.

        But I didn’t feel like writing a story which happened in a world like that, way too depressing. So I had them invaded by a group of aliens who even worse than the ruling class, and clever enough to go first after the wizards. And then set the story at a point when part of the world is ruled by those nasty aliens, and what are left of free humans, well, the ones with the talent for magic are a bit busy trying to help the rest to stay unconquered, so at least for now they are behaving themselves.

        I am going to write to the end of the war, but the problem I haven’t solved is how could the denizens of the world figure out a system in which they might make the return of the previous order unlikely? I’d like to have some sort of happy ending, not leave it where it looks likely that their world will most likely sooner or later succumb to the same fate it did before, a dictatorship by the magic users.

        1. Christopher Nuttall’s Sufficiently Advanced Technology, while SF, has that idea about “wizards = rulers”. Of course, it turns out that the wizards are being manipulated by an alien super-computer. [Wink]

          Seriously, it depends on the “interests” of the wizards. If the wizards, in general, are more interesting studying their powers, how to use their powers, how to increase their powers or studying other interests, then they may not want to be “bothered” by “lesser matters” like ruling non-wizards. It could be a situation where wizards might be “officially” rulers of territories but leave “lesser matters” involved in such rulership in the hands of non-wizards working for them.

        2. One model says that representative governments tend to have roots in dominant weapons systems that reward such. Phalanx and Trireme, for example.

          Perhaps the aliens have a counter to magic. Whether or not, a solution might be having the humans develop a counter to both magic and the aliens that requires large groups cooperating.

          Maybe some sort of group psychic antimagic field?

          1. That world also has ley lines, and intelligent spirit creatures able to use magic connected to them (those are dragons and unicorns and other mythological creatures, but they are spirits which can appear as solid for a while rather than flesh and blood animals with some magical aspects). The old wizards had turned all the stronger ones into slaves, and they are not overly friendly towards any humans when the story starts. I think I’m probably going for some sort of balance of powers between the human magic users and the spirits as the solution in the end, maybe they can keep each other in check.

            1. Having been in a war, with your wizards targeted, you could knock the percentage of them down low enough to reduce their ability to rule. If there’s a genetic component, you could have the aliens hit civilian centers and kill a sizable portion of the female wizards, so the survivors dilute their bloodlines intermarrying with muggles, so to speak. You’re the author, you get to play god.

  2. Just looked at th link Cedar provided to the top 100 fantasy. Looking at their top 13 (took me that far to find one I unreservedly like) that was put together by some wet behind the ears kid with delusions of grandeur.

    1. Of course, that’s a list of novels, but my reaction was “They missed Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser.”


    2. I don’t know about who put it together (although the inclusion of the Twilight books* in the top ten threw me) but I had certainly heard of most of either the books or authors listed. There were probably only about a dozen that I have finished however, with probably at least half that many that I started and didn’t finish. Since I almost never start a book and not finish it, that is saying a lot. The bouncing back and forth between listing series and listing individual books is odd, but really makes good sense. I have to agree with Cedar that I don’t like fantasy, but I find I like it written by authors that I like, other than authors that I’ve met around here the majority of the fantasy I read is written by authors I was first introduced to and enjoyed in another genre (usually science fiction).

      *The really sad thing is after reading through the list of 100 the one Twilight book I have read would easily make my top five out of that list. And note it was only good enough for me to read the one, I never went out and picked up the other books in the series up to read, but at least it was finishable and the author did an excellent job of researching and getting correct a place where I used to live.

  3. Human beings took wind, water, fire, and lightning — mysterious, capricious forces — and turned them into clipper ships, hydroelectric dams, internal combustion engines, and computers. If any fantasy world doesn’t take into account our predilection for turning the forces around us into commodities and engineering, it’s not true to human nature. If magic is rare and difficult to control, there should be a convincing reason.

    One of the more believable bits of the Harry Potter books (like some others, but few) is Rowling actually takes this into account. There’s an entire wizarding economy and industries built around magic as an alternative science.

    1. One of my favorite fantasies of all times are Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy mysteries. One of the best things about them is that the practitioners treat magic as science, with the occasional dig at our science as mumbo-jumbo

    2. I’m headed that way with my new series (The Affinities of Magic). The MC is going to develop the theories for the biological underpinnings of magic in his world and spark a sort of industrial revolution in the process. One of the things I was just realizing this morning is the difficulty of controlling industrial secrets in a world without patent law. Dried reconstitutable magical bacteria, anyone?

    3. I would quibble. Engineering is a powerful set of tools, but I do not see clear signs of them being present in all human societies.

      Of course ‘we are just breaking even, losing thirty percent of the male population to violence’ might be as dull as frying ants with a lens, but there are world building options for those that want them.

      I have a taste for the engineering flavor in fiction myself. Doc Smith, RAH, a guy I don’t know I should mention, some parts of Kratman, these all have a place in my heart.

      For some reason I want to mention Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei

  4. That’s one thing M. Lackey and L. Dixon really get right. Their magical system has laws, restrictions, and a plausible explanation for what does or does not work. The telepathy/ mind-magic is a little fuzzier, but the “high magic” has a logic to it that really adds to the Velgarth/Valdemar world. Because oh yes, the “waves hands, no-cost miracle happens” stuff gets very old.

  5. Sarah, I like you, but you’re being incomplete. _Bad_ Fantasy is *bad,* just a “bad” SF is *bad.* Bad Fantasy, and bad SF have the same things in common. “And then, the golerp, frazzed, causing the opponent to jim jam.” Every action has a cost, of some kind. Even transistors use a tiny amount of energy to control a many times larger flow. Bad anything, pays no attention to entropy, thermodynamics, and/or Human Nature.

    1. Second the not-Sarah. Dan and Sanford would object. And yes, this is true, it’s not just fantasy that goes bad places. However, I wrote this based on a commentor’s request that I elaborate on magic and it’s misuses.

        1. How do you know that one wasn’t an actor? [Very Big Evil Grin]

          Note, there was a joke on the Bar that John Ringo was a pen-name of David Weber and that the “John Ringo” that people met at cons was an actor hired by David Weber. [Grin]

  6. I think mecha anime are a good example of this.

    Generally speaking, the issues of ground pressure and bearing strength alone, in my view, should be enough to firmly place them in the realm of magic.

    Why don’t I just dismiss the entire genre as a heap of lies?

    Often, the mecha are used as a vehicle for certain emotional truths, generally related to ‘if you will not fight, you cannot win.’

    Take Pacific Rim. ‘If you let fear of death keep you from battle, you will lose.’

    Yes, maintenance, economics, and the question of whether whatever contrivances would stand up to an actual warfare environment. If one isn’t hanging the story on realism, emotional falsehoods, or something else that won’t match the mecha, it can be fine. Even if one is, enough explosions may save it for some audiences.

    I think fantasy in general makes it less obvious what sorts of stories will expose the the shortcomings of the standard assumptions than mecha do.

    1. “Even if one is, enough explosions may save it for some audiences. ”

      Yep, not sure how something works? Just add another battle/brawl, it is a time honored solution because it works. Travis Taylor’s One Day series is a good example. I’m not sure how his transformer ‘space fighters’ work, seems totally implausible to me. But the books are basically just one big dogfight/slugfest with a little plot/storyline thrown in, and I enjoyed them.

  7. I guess I either don’t know any stories like you’re talking about, or else I don’t understand the post at all.

    First of all, and this may be a result of it being the way I’ve always seen it, “cost”, to me, has come to mean that it does something bad to the character – shortens your life, makes you ugly, causes you to pass out from using it, etc.

    1. Hmm… didn’t mean to hit the Post button yet…

      While the comments seem to indicate that you mean something else, I haven’t really been able to figure out exactly what you DO mean by, “Cost”. I can’t think of any stories where magic doesn’t either require the use of the energy of the body, or else is of limited use.

      1. In RL, all actions have a cost, which includes opportunity cost.

        Writing this means I’m not going to be doing other things, even if I am probably out of the ability to do really productive things for the night.

        If I don’t have an income, savings will eventually run out. Me and everyone else want to work, because it is an efficient and effective way of solving the problem. When the economy is hosed, fewer jobs are available, and they don’t wait for someone to show up.

        Even if a money fairy was handing out currency, it wouldn’t do everyone any good, as it wouldn’t provide the productivity that backs it with wealth.

        Sirlin’s Playing to Win comes to mind as part of an alternative explanation, which I think I’ve gotten shot down on an earlier version of this website for using; take the section on IIRC, degenerate games. Think like a Chess game, where only the two Pawn in white’s leftmost row can be moved. The stories which are considered to have the problem discussed here might be related to the cognate to such.

        A story about a Pawn, where it is the only piece that moves, might be such a story weak in costs and risks. A story with two pawns, restricted as before, might be flat and empty compared to one that makes the reader think of the whole board, with all pieces able to move.

  8. The top 100 list you link sounds like it was written by someone who has only read what made the NYT bestsellers list, and what was assigned in their lit class.

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